I’ve been obsessed with personality for as long as I remember.

The idea that you could check the box, answer the quiz, and gain deep insight into your soul (not to mention those of others around you) held great appeal. (That’s typical for INFPs like myself, although I didn’t know it at the time.)

Despite being obsessed with personality profiles from the moment I first heard of them, those personality tests weren’t actually very helpful to me for many, many years. That’s because without even realizing it, my answers to all those test questions reflected my aspirations, not my reality: they didn’t reflect who I really was. (According to my early personality profiles, I was an intellectual, rational, linear-thinking type. Not hardly.)

I violated the first rule of self-knowledge: ask yourself who you are, not who you wish to be. When it comes to personality, naming who you wish you could be is a waste of time.

That’s because personality tests don’t measure traits that can be cultivated, like integrity, or generosity, or kindness. When we talk about personality, we’re not talking about virtues or vices; we’re talking about who you are at a gut level: the way you were wired, who you were made to be. If you’re an ENFP, or an enneagram type 6, or an HSP, you can’t be blamed for that—but you can’t take credit for it, either. When it comes to personality, you are what you are. You can’t hand your cards back and re-draw a more appealing combination.

When it comes to personality, you have to play the hand your dealt … and yet personality discoveries are far from fatalistic. If your personality was your destiny, this topic would just invite unproductive navel-gazing.  But personality isn’t your fate, it’s your starting point.

When you explore your own personality, the question isn’t What makes me so great? (or, on the flip side, Why am I so hopeless?). It’s What am I really like?. One question invites forward movement: it prods you to discover who you are, and why you’re here. It spurs you to cultivate a healthy, whole self. The other does not.

But is knowing yourself really that hard? In a word, yes. It may seem like this should be easy: you’ve lived with yourself for a long time, after all. But that’s the problem. Once you’ve spent several decades seeing the world from your own particular point of view, you don’t even realize that that’s all you’re seeing…one person’s point of view. You’re accustomed to your own perspective, and it’s easy to view it not as unique, but as correct. We too often don’t understand how—or why—others see the world differently than we do.

Cultivating this knowledge is surprisingly difficult, but it’s worth pursuing. Self-awareness is an incredible tool for understanding who you are, and why you do what you do. Most importantly, it’s only when you truly understand yourself that you can do something about it.

Understanding the way you were made helps in all kinds of concrete ways, from the mundane to the earth-moving: You can recognize which jobs are a good fit for you, you can stop procrastinating, you can finally get organized. You can have more meaningful conversations with your kids, better visits with your best friend, more productive arguments with your significant other. Learning about your own personality will open your eyes to why you do what you do—whether they’re healthy impulses or broken ones—and the impact that those things have on other people.

Self-knowledge isn’t a magic bullet, but it can make a phenomenal difference in your life, your work, and your relationships. It’s too important to not pursue. Let’s do this.

ACTIVITIES & QUESTIONS

1. Do you enjoy reading about personality types and what makes people tick? Or does this all seem like meaningless navel-gazing?

2. We instinctively know that certain personalities fit better in certain situations. A strict, tough drill instructor is great at bootcamp, but not so effective in a preschool classroom. In the same way, our personalities make things like various careers, being a stay-at-home parent, and even marriage easier for some of us and more work for others. In what ways does your personality predispose to your roles in life? In what ways do you have to overcome your natural inclinations?

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